Harper Collins 2011
I have recently been lamenting the lack of good YA thrillers. As a big fan of adult crime/thriller fiction I have been looking for a decent YA contribution and slowly some are starting to emerge (Long Reach and The Body Finder standing out in particular). Burning Secrets instantly caught my attention as a title that looked like it took a decent stab at the thriller genre – and it does.
The book starts with the setting of a small bonfire that soon leads to an accidental arson with disastrous consequences. Told in the first person, it is intentionally vague on the identity of the narrator and this story arch continues sporadically throughout the book, always in first person, always in italics with the narrator's identity slowly becoming clearer. While not the main plot it does give us some insight into the characters and adds a slightly edgy quality to the more central plot.
The main story line is that of Daniel and his sister Louie who are leaving behind a troubled past in London to move to a small island with their single mother. The island, Wragge, is a community in a bubble, with few outsiders and little contact with the outside world. While the siblings are to be home schooled, they soon meet some local youngsters and Daniel in particular is struck by how happy they seem to be at school (something that neither he nor Louie can particularly relate to). The local kids also seem to be pretty keen on snaffling down local foliage, known as Leaf – something Daniel cannot understand due to the plant's foul taste. From this point on things just become stranger and stranger.
Daniel is a likable protagonist. He's clearly not had an easy time of it recently and seems glad of the freedom that Wragge allows him. He also seems to miss interacting with people and seeks out the locals more quickly than his sister. Louie obviously has issues from her past and I found her, for the majority of the book, pretty irritating. Yet she does manage to redeem herself a little and I did like the fact that her and Daniel were close, even though they still bickered a lot. Their relationship seemed like a believable one between siblings. Ramsey, the local girl who catches Daniel's eye was interesting enough but showed little in the way of personality. While this was related to the overall plot, I did find it hard to understand why Daniel found her so intriguing. In fact, their whole budding relationship didn't particularly ring true to me. They only actually meet about half a dozen times over the course of the book and I really didn't see how their feelings for each other developed. However, I can concede that some teenage relationships can appear out of nowhere and perhaps that is what the author was aiming at.
The plot of Burning Secrets was interesting in a kind of Stepford Wives meets Freaks and Geeks sort of way. That may make it sound less than original but I've not come across this kind of story line in YA before and enjoyed the ride. However, I sometimes felt that the story moved too fast, hurrying over scenes that could have been given more depth, more suspense and more detail. The plot left me wanting more and it was frustrating to see such a good premise underused. While the back story of arson and it's consequences gives some much needed insight into Daniel, it was to the detriment of the main mystery. Daniel's background could easily have been exposited over the course of the book without cutting away from the primary plot, losing pace along the way.
Having said this, Burning Secrets is an interesting read and a promising debut. It is also great to see a book of this style on shelves and I would urge anyone who enjoys a good thriller to pick it up. While Daniel appears to be about 16, I think that this book would go down a storm with middle grade readers. Perhaps I have been ruined by adult crime thrillers, as I have a strong feeling that I would have loved this when in my teens. Clare Chambers has boldly gone where few YA writers dare to step and I hope that she continues on this path as I would love to read whatever she comes up with next.
Burning Secrets is available now. Thank you to Harper Collins for providing me with this title to review.